Journaling can be an extremely useful tool for exploring your inner-self and identifying issues that are lying beneath the surface.
The essence of journalling is giving yourself the space to write anything that is on your mind, no matter how personal it is. This is your safe space that nobody will ever read. If you feel unsure about this, you can destroy your journal writings after getting it down.
The process of writing about your suffering and feelings alone can bring you relief.
To get more effective at journalling though you can use these three things:
Finding the root cause
When journaling you will often write down the cause of your actions to be something very “surface level”. For example: “I was anxious because I wanted to impress him.”
However, to really improve and grow you need to move past surface-level justifications and identify the root causes.
One thing that can help is called five whys, which is an interrogative technique used to identify a root cause.
I first learned about this technique in software development; rather than just fixing a bug when it comes up, you aim to identify if the problem was caused by something more systematic. This allows you to start from a surface level issue and identify the underlying root cause. By fixing this root cause, it means you not only fix this one issue, but also many other similar issues that would have come up in the future.
The process is simple. You start with what went wrong and ask “Why?”. Your first answer will always be surface level, and so then you repeat the process and ask “Why?” in response to your answer.
It doesn’t really matter how many times you repeat this, it’s just important that you keep going past surface-level reasoning and look for deeper level root causes.
- Why did I lie?
- Because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings?
- Why don’t I want to hurt her feelings?
- Because I care about her.
- Why do you think lying is better than hurting the feelings of people?
- F*ck that’s a really good question… I guess because my parents used to get blow up at me whenever I let them down, so I got used to not telling them anything bad so that they wouldn’t rage at me. It worked for a long time so I just kept doing it.
- Don’t get stuck on tangential surface level issues. You don’t want to keep shifting the blame, rather you want to identify the causes of your causes.
- Sometimes you hit a roadblock, go back a few steps and as a different why.
- Unlike software, root causes of the mind are really hard to pin down. You may not get to THE root, but go past the surface.
- Use dot-points. Nobody is reading this, just get as much information out as possible.
Two ways of attacking a problem
Ok so asking “why” is the basis for these next two parts.
To understand your problems there are two ways that you can look at them.
- That your actions are habits/responses from the past.
- That your actions are fuelled by motivations for the future.
Looking backwards for causes
When journalling if you continually ask why you did something, you will end up looking back into your past to identify relationships, habits, events, etc. that caused you to act a certain way.
So write down the question:
Why did I do X?
Then just let your hands go free and write down whatever comes to mind. Don’t worry about correctness or anything else, get down whatever springs to mind.
This will help you discover a whole bunch of interrelated issues.
This is good but often you get stuck, and don’t really know why you did something. To get you out of this, sometimes it can help to reframe the question slightly differently.
- Don’t just look at external events, also look at your own personality traits. Then try to understand how you developed those traits.
- Find causes outside of yourself (other people, environment, etc.) but always keep yourself responsible (don’t blame others.)
Looking forwards for motivations
When you get stuck, rather than looking into the past you can try to look into the future.
So write down,
What am I trying to achieve by doing X?
This makes you look at your behaviours as being fuelled by the intention to get some result. The difference if often subtle but it can help you get past mental blockages.
It could look something like this:
- Why am I annoyed with James?
- Because he is always acting so cocky and I find it really rude.
- What am I trying to achieve by being rude back to James?
- I’m trying to show him that his behaviour is unacceptable.
- Cool, is being rude the best way to achieve that?
This second approach can sometimes lead to more actionable steps. Rather than feeling like the world is a certain way and not being able to change it, you realise that we all only ever do things because we are trying to achieve something.
- Be honest with what you are trying to achieve.